Club Focus – Arsenal – Henry hailed but the Gunners almost failed

Thierry Henry was given the welcome that his years of service and entertainment deserved as he made a cameo appearance on his return to the Arsenal. The rapturous welcome that greeted Thierry’s return was only beaten by the clamour when Cesc Fabregas won and converted a penalty to salvage a 2-2 draw and give the Gunners a fighting chance in the second leg.

In addition to the nostalgic return of a former luminary, Arsenal’s play had a certain retrospective quality. The introduction of Theo Walcott saw Arsenal return to their counter-attacking vintage of the early 2000s – a throwback to the wing play of Robert Pires and Fredrik Ljungberg – players who had helped to make Henry’s time at Arsenal so prolific and profitable. Oft criticised for lacking a ‘Plan B’ and being one-dimensional, Arsenal showed ingenuity to vary their play and punish the Catalans’ weaknesses. Having gone 2-0 down the Gunners began to stem the tide and launch rapier like counter attacks down either flank. Walcott’s pace provided the creative spark that had been lacking up to that point as their usual artist, Fabregas, was a shadow of his brilliant best having been hampered by injury. Walcott’s goal transformed the flow of the match, and despite his apparent lack of sharpness, the Spaniard battled on and still managed to make a telling contribution to the game.

Whilst his equaliser may yet turn out to be priceless, it is similarly hard to quantify at what cost it came. Already carrying an injury to his right knee, Carles Puyol’s challenge on the captain resulted in a fractured fibula and has ruled him out for the rest of the season. Having picked up his third booking of the European campaign, the captain would have missed his homecoming match anyway, but the run-in for the league title is perhaps where his absence will be most keenly felt. Similarly, the gambles on the fitness of William Gallas and Andrey Arshavin backfired – the pair will both be out for three weeks – leaving the Gunners looking a little threadbare as they enter the home stretch. With a tough fixture against an in-form Wolves team on Saturday coming off the back of a disappointing weekend in the league, the Londoners realistically need to win all of their remaining games to have a chance of lifting the title.

Goal difference may be a key factor in deciding the destination of the Premiership crown and after the defence held out doggedly on Wednesday in the face of wave after wave of Catalan pressure, they displayed recurring signs of frailty shortly after the break. Vermaelen’s battling provided a flashback to Tony Adams in his pomp, yet his decision to step up in true Adams style left Arsenal exposed for Ibrahimovic’s goals. The manager appeared to berate his centre-back for losing track of the Swede, but on closer inspection it was probably for stepping out to stifle Lionel Messi and leaving space in behind which was so clinically exploited. A lack of understanding with his defensive partner Alex Song was to blame for the goals, which begs the question why Sol Campbell wasn’t drafted in when the gamble on Gallas’ fitness did not pay off. Perhaps key to this decision was Song’s cheap booking for blocking a quickly-taken free kick from Messi moments before Gallas’ withdrawal. Wenger knew the midfielder would be walking a tightrope from then on and so deployed him in the back line to reduce his exposure to the Argentinean wizard. Aside from conceding the goals, this tactic worked well, as Messi was successfully shackled and Gallas’ replacement Denilson brought hunger and energy in the middle and provided a more creative dimension for Arsenal to chase the game.

Although the Ashburton Grove faithful are not accustomed to seeing their side have such little possession, in many ways they witnessed a typical Arsenal performance. Defensive naivety mixed with attacking genius in equal measure, the goalkeeper produced terrific reflex saves before being undone by an error in judgment, the team sustained yet more injuries and above all the encounter provided sheer entertainment. In terms of morale, the game was the polar opposite of the Birmingham fixture where a draw felt like a defeat, as the manner of the comeback made the draw feel like a victory. Arsenal know they have it all to do in the away leg – needing to score at least once – but with both of Barcelona’s first-choice centre-backs suspended, they will be confident of finding the net – the problem may come in keeping the ball out of their own.

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